February 8, 2007

When You're Running

The front door, discernible only by its English moniker, is one of thirty. The crumbling building, which has seen and survived dropped bombs and Richter-rocking earthquakes and post-war occupation, is one of thousands. Japan is a place of numbers and Kyoto, its cultural capital and certified purveyor of tsukemono, is no exception. In this uniformly-packed city where the porcelaneous faces of old-world geisha meet the constant arcade fire of pachinko parlours, it's easy to get caught in the web of the gaijin caucus. Yet, away from the east-meets-west pick-up joints and misplaced fawning is a city teeming with riches; a culture built on a strict adherence to age-old practices; a religion that still inspires reverence and encourages ritual visits to stunning temples like Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji; an unfathomable world in the cobbled streets of Gion that, as you inch tediously closer, creeps further away. But, as these old-world ways seep seamlessly into the new, there is no sign of the young turning their collective back, and it seems the oft-chequered but always engaging past of Japan is safe in the hands of the future.

February 9, 2006

will vs be going to

It's taken a long time to get here. A long time to remove my subjective shades and view Japan as a country in its own right, and not merely as an environment that isn't home.
Initially, buoyed by the fact I was living in a place that is the total antithesis of Perth, I sugar-coated the shortcomings and found comfort in supermarket peculiarities, buying beer in convenience stores and revelling in the anachronistic nature of Kyoto. Now, as I lug around my gaijin (literally translated to alien) registration card, vividly recollect being turned away from a bar because the menu wasn't in English and continually astonish natives with my ability to use chopsticks, I've realised that Japan, like Australia, is a country knee-deep in racism. Yet, as Australia's bubbled furiously to the surface last year (incidents that made me embarrassed as I read about continual developments), Japan's general unease with foreigners seeps out in ways that, at first, could be seen as quirks, but in reality are flaws that, for some, are enough to make them leave.
Approximately 1% of the population in Japan is composed of foreigners, of which 51% are Korean. Indeed, many Koreans are 3rd or 4th generation, yet as Japanese citizenship is based on lineage they are not automatically awarded citizenship. Many Koreans migrated when Japan colonised Korea in 1910 and continued to control it until the end of World War II, and, as it has been widely-documented, thousands were forcibly brought to Japan to assist the war-effort. Despite establishing such strong roots and rights in Japan, Koreans, and indeed all foreigners with permanent residency, still encounter gross discrimination in areas such as government (they are still ineligible to vote), social security (working in Japan for less than 25 years means you can't collect a pension here, nor is it reciprocated when you return home - two exceptions being Germany and the UK) and employment (though it is lessening, Koreans still battle their ancestry when attempting to find jobs).
What is most striking is the different routes taken by Australia and Japan with reference to immigration policies. Virtually homogenous, Japan has done little to embrace foreigners and places great importance on 'pure' family lineage, marriage into financially secure families and traditional family values. Australia, meanwhile, blossomed during the 'Populate or Perish' era, though this came some 30 years after the 'White Australia' policy, and now boasts one of the most multinational populations in the world. Yet, as was evidenced by the Cronulla race riots of last year, many Australians still subscribe to the antiquated notion of a country being identifiable by the colour, not quality, of its people.
There are, however, signs of change. A recent survey at the prestigious Tokyo University showed a whopping 90% in favour of giving voting rights in local government elections to foreigners. Later this year, South Korea will afford voting rights to its foreigners; it's believed such a development will encourage the Japanese government to do the same. So, in this country at least, the hope rests with the young, but as a portion of Australia's youth made clear last December, the push to populate has left some in an arm-wrestle for control of a country still finding its feet.